Insights and Analysis

The United States & an East Asian Community

May 30, 2007

By John J. Brandon

At the end of the Cold War, although the U.S. served as an anchor for Asian economies and was the top export destination for the majority of Asian nations, the countries of East Asia believed the United States looked at the region with “benign neglect” or indifference. Shortly afterwards, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad proposed an East Asia Economic Caucus that would comprise just Asian nations, but given U.S. objections, the proposed grouping was considered anti-western and a potential trading bloc. Thus, it never materialized.  For a five year period, the idea of creating some form of East Asian community remained dormant until the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998. 

The financial crisis was a key turning point. Many Asian nations, including long-time American allies, thought the U.S. to be both unreliable and uninterested in the region’s newfound dynamics.  In response, the countries of East Asia developed an Asian mechanism to address future economic crises. This mechanism, ASEAN + 3, which comprises the 10 nations of Southeast Asia plus China, Japan, and South Korea, was created in 1999 to help facilitate trade and investment policies in the region. Since then, ASEAN +3 has evolved to include discussing political and security issues.

Rightly or wrongly, 10 years after the Asian financial crisis many Asian countries still view the U.S. as inadequately engaged with the region.  Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has been perceived to be preoccupied with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and the global war on terror, of which it views Southeast Asia as a second front.  With the exception of the war in Iraq, foreign policy will likely receive little attention in the 2008 U.S. presidential election.  Therefore, East Asian nations are trying to develop an East Asian Community, one that includes other countries outside the region (India, Australia, and New Zealand), but not the United States.

Unlike its opposition to the East Asian Economic Caucus in 1991, U.S. strategy is to not oppose regional trading and consultative arrangements that exclude it, but to ensure U.S. access through bilateral arrangements, global institutions, or through close coordination with friendly member nations.  Much intellectual attention has been focused on the creation of an East Asian community, but there is ambiguity on the actual direction of the process. This begs several questions. First, can a comprehensive community-building effort, one that has both an economic and security dimension to it, be achieved? Second, how does political/security cooperation facilitate or hamper this process?  And, third, perhaps the most challenging question, what is the region’s vision for an East Asian community? Answering this question would provide a clearer sense of what U.S. foreign policy should be towards the Asia-Pacific region as it strengthens and deepens its economic and political integration.

Another unanswered question is what country or countries will lead an East Asian community? All countries in the region are grappling with how to handle the rise of China at a time when Japan is reemerging from its economic doldrums and is trying to reassert its influence in the region. Good relations between China and Japan are critical if an East Asian community is to be achieved.  At the moment, there is no mechanism to effectively deal with Sino-Japanese tensions. There is a strong sense within ASEAN that it should be the leader of an East Asia Community.  But given ASEAN’s difficulties in trying to resolve problems within its membership, would an East Asian community under ASEAN leadership be just another talk shop that aims toward the lowest common denominator?

Some U.S. policymakers believe this is how an East Asian community may evolve and, as a consequence, the U.S. should not be too concerned about the creation of an Asian-Pacific organization that does not include it. Others argue that an East Asian community could work to potentially diminish U.S. influence in Asia, replace APEC as the main multilateral forum in Asia on trade and investment liberalization, and further marginalize Taiwan ” who was not invited to the East Asian Summit but is a member of APEC.

Given a growing pan-Asian consciousness that resonates strongly both economically and culturally, it would be a mistake for the U.S. to not take seriously East Asians’ aspirations to create a community. Doing so will only reinforce the view that the U.S. is indifferent to the dynamics in the region. Consequently, despite the U.S. being the dominant military power in Asia and the world’s largest economy, it could gradually lose influence in the Asia-Pacific, especially relative to China. At the same time, although not officially part of the process, East Asia should not overlook the stabilizing role of the U.S. At a time of rising regional tensions swirling around North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, China’s rise to regional leadership, rising nationalism in Japan, and the continuing emotional burden of unresolved historical issues, U.S. engagement is especially important until an East Asian community reaches a higher level of trust and comfort amongst its members as well as its neighbors. If East Asian nations can articulate clearly the goals of an East Asian community, and these goals are not contrary to U.S. interests, the U.S. should accept trends and institutions that may not include it.

John J. Brandon, a Southeast Asia specialist, is Director of The Asia Foundation’s International Relations Programs.  In 2007, Mr. Brandon is managing the “East Asia Community Building” project to examine the prospects for a community so that the processes, motives, and impact on Asia and U.S.-Asian relations can be fully understood.

Related locations: China, Japan, Korea
Related programs: International Cooperation


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